Anyone affected by them wants to know what causes sleep disorders. We wait anxiously for a cure. Before the cure, we must find the cause. A cure would bring thousands of people relief from the daily torment of a sleep disorder.
Sleep is Still a Mystery
It is the brain, after all.
As the” brain is not an easily accessible organ, mechanisms of disease initiation and progression remain a challenge to researchers.”
-Singh AK, et al. J Autoimmun. 2013
The function of the brain is still an unknown frontier. It is vast and complex. It is perhaps a more complicated exploration than the great ocean depths and the dark distances of space. Yet, more understanding of it is urgently needed in many areas. The study of sleep is just one of them.
Thankfully modern medical research seems to be making significant strides toward understanding the science of sleep.
It wasn’t until after the 1950s that there was much research or interest in studying sleep. Until that time, sleep was believed to be a period of passive brain activity. There was no understanding of the importance of sleep and the impact of sleep on our lifestyle and health.
It was after World War II that the studies of the famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud sparked an interest in dreams. This led to the discovery of rapid eye movement during sleep. This is when curious minds went to work on the study of REM and this mysterious thing we call sleep.
What We Know
In 1965 some European groups identified the condition they called sleep apnea, named after the Greek word “apnea”. Which means “without or want of breath”.
Sleep apnea is a condition characterized by loud snoring, choking or gasping during sleep. A person with who has sleep apnea periodically has pauses in their breathing while sleeping. The individual is not usually aware of these brief moments of waking. They are more often aware of unusual drowsiness in the day. However, not everyone with sleep apnea struggles with the sleepiness.
Sleep apnea has been classified into 3 types:
- Obstructive – the most common form of sleep apnea. It is caused when the tissue in the throat obstructs the airway.
- Central- the brain fails to send the signal to the brain to inhale.
- Mixed – a combination of obstructive and central apnea.
For nearly two decades the most widely used treatment was a tracheotomy, which involved surgically opening a hole in the windpipe.
Thankfully, in 1981 Professor Colin Sullivan developed the first CPAP. Which was much different from what we have today, but I imagine far better than the tracheotomy!
Narcolepsy was first described way back in 1880 by Jean Baptist Edourad Gelline; long before anyone was studying sleep.
Thankfully there were curious minds in the world who kept researching. Although, it is a very complex condition we now have some comprehension of what narcolepsy is about. and there is much more to discover about it.
The symptoms of narcolepsy widely vary but they include:
- extreme daytime sleepiness
- sleep attacks
- sleep paralysis
- automatic behavior
- lucid dreaming
For me personally, the cataplexy has been the most frightening symptom to deal with over the years. I am grateful to say that it has been well controlled with antidepressants.
Narcolepsy is believed to be caused by a lack of hypocretin. Hypocretin is responsible for keeping us awake and alert. Some speculate that the producing cells in the hypothalamus have been damaged. People with narcolepsy are believed to have a genetic predisposition for it from birth.
At least one study has suggested a possible link between narcolepsy and certain strains of infection like strep and influenza. Some researchers are suspect that narcolepsy is, in fact, an autoimmune disorder.
Based on my own experience with narcolepsy, I think this hypothesis is headed in the right direction. Of course, further research is needed for the classification to change.
The research is exciting and promising.
However, I must admit that it is really hard to imagine what life would be without being narcoleptic!
This condition is easily recognized and usually, self-diagnosed by the inability to fall asleep and difficulty staying asleep.
The all-night struggle to sleep leaves a person drowsy during the day. This nonrestorative sleep often impairs brain function so memory is affected and the brainy is “foggy”. Memory and concentration are hindered. This is obviously a problem when you need to be alert for your day. There are things you can do to help you get through your day. One of these things is to take supplements to help your brain.
Restless Leg Syndrome
RLS is an irresistible urge to move your legs when sitting or lying down.
The exact cause of this is still unknown. However, studies suggest that the transmission of the dopamine signal is impaired. Iron deficiency could be a contributing factor as well.
Why Does It Matter?
Those of us who live with the sleep deficits, stress and frustration of a sleep disorder know why it’s important to find out what causes sleep disorders. We know the desperate longing for a cure to be found. However, others perhaps do not truly understand the need.
Our health and general well-being are immensely affected by the quality of sleep.
Today 50-70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders and complain of occasional disruptions of their sleep.
The risks of sleep apnea include cardiovascular problems, stroke, diabetes, and even death. Having sleep apnea increases a person’s risk of death by more than 3x.
And 25 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea.
1 in every 2,000 have narcolepsy but in addition to that, many people go undiagnosed.
Ways to Help
Whether you are a person with a sleep disorder, a friend or a family member of someone who is or a community member just looking to help, there are ways to contribute to the research and support of individuals suffering.
One very important way is by helping to spread awareness about these conditions. Also, you can encourage sleepy people to talk to a specialist if they suspect their sleep is not restorative.
A second way to can help is to volunteer at a conference held by organizations such as the Narcolepsy Network.
If you are an athlete you could run a marathon to raise funds for research and awareness.
There is Hope
During my research for this article, I have come across a lot of fascinating facts and research. I am thrilled to see that so much has been happening in the research of sleep disorders in recent years. I expect that the momentum to find a cure will continue to grow. Eventually, a cure will emerge as long as we keep pushing for it.